Forum: We seem locked in cycle where we allow wealth to rule

Twice in America’s history we’ve allowed greed to lead at great cost to society. It’s happening again.

Ron Friesen

Ron Friesen

By Ron Friesen / Herald Forum

By any measure, it appears we are experiencing the titanic, slow-motion crumbling of our culture. We think we are focussing on the causes of degraded health care, ineffective courts and law enforcement, declining school achievement, increasing youth suicide, rampant drug overdoses, and unheard of homelessness. But we are not.

These issues are only symptoms of a much bigger problem we have yet to acknowledge and address. Instead of confronting the elephant in the room, we are trying in vain to put lids on boiling pots.

Yes, each issue certainly requires individual attention. But singular focus on individual issues while ignoring the basic cause is like trying to fix a building by installing a new roof, while ignoring the crumbling foundation. The new roof will extend the building’s life a little, but the building’s ultimate collapse remains a predictable certainty.

We have faced similar challenges twice before. Once was prior to the Civil War, and the other was during the late Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 20th century. In both cases the common problem was tremendous creation of wealth with a dogged determination by those accumulating the new wealth to hoard it to manipulate government instead of sharing and letting democracy rule.

Our country’s Achille’s heel is the constantly recurring belief that accumulating great wealth represents our highest ideal. But twice before our country was shattered by this myth. There is still no limit to greed, and we are now in crisis No. 3 after less than 300 years of our fragile experiment with democracy. We are slow learners.

Prior to the Civil War, incredible wealth was achieved by southern plantation owners. Was this wealth shared with the workers? No, they were unpaid slaves who were barely clothed, fed and housed for their labor. “Woke” northerners realized this was immoral, and it took a civil war to free the slaves which left our country in ruins. We survived, but did we learn?

The nation then plunged into the Industrial Revolution. All resources and all people were now fair game to the industrialists. Pay the least amount possible to obtain resources, and use newly acquired wealth to manipulate government to obtain those resources regardless of impact on land or people. (Sound familiar?) Pay workers the least possible, use child labor, women’s labor (who could not vote) and immigrant labor at poverty wages. Make them dependent on “the company” for subsistence, and thereby guarantee their loyalty.

World War I created even more wealth, and the flu pandemic plus excesses of the “Roaring ’20s” by the uberwealthy gave way to the Great Depression which almost destroyed us again. Meanwhile, the greed and immorality of the wealthy began to give way to organized labor with a cause that was both moral and just: pay workers their fair share.

The wheel of history is turning again, but as frequently is the case, we no longer have the living memory of those previous times. World War II’s Greatest Generation, who lived through the Great Depression, the flu pandemic, Hitler and fascism, the Holocaust, and the rebuilding of our country in the ’50s and ’60s, are now mostly gone. Instead of learning from our past and avoiding the same mistakes, we have collectively, apathetically, and ignorantly decided to learn the hard way. Again. As a country, we definitely are stubborn, slow learners.

Twice before we have addressed the greedy impulses of the wealthy few to manipulate our government. The first time when we abolished slavery was a short term fix. The last confrontation was almost 100 years ago. So we made some progress. But greed has raised its ugly head again, and it is smarter and cagier this time. We need to lock it up and throw away the key this time.

How much is enough? Getting 100 times the pay of the lowest paid worker? 1,000 times? 10,000 times? Check out your company and do the math. Realization will dawn that it is not just lust for wealth. It is lust for power and control over our lives.

We now have over 1,000 billionaires. The only thing missing is the title of Lord or Baron. We are morphing right back into the culture we broke away from in 1776. Maybe King George in the musical “Hamilton” was right when he said, “You’ll be back.”

Ron Friesen is a longtime Marysville resident, a retired music teacher and community and church musician and is committed to community improvement.

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